Bear River was able to go toe-to-toe with an top-notch Pacheco Panthers squad Friday night, but fell one score short, losing 35-29.
Even in defeat fans, players and coaches should note there is much to be exited about moving forward with the season. Not only did this young Bruins roster match up well with the more seasoned roster of the Panthers, but Bear River actually set the tone early and managed to keep the heat on for the duration of the game.
Senior quarterback Austin Smith had an exceptional debut at the varsity level, completing more than 75 percent of his passes to finish with three touchdowns and over 200 yards with one interception. He had ample time in the pocket with the offensive line blocking well and also creating space on the edges for explosive junior running back Kyle Uclaray.
Smith did get sacked four times throughout the game, but some of those could have been avoided had he thrown the ball away.
When the Bruins took over at their own 17 yard-line late in the third quarter trailing 29-22, Smith led his team on an 83-yard scoring drive to knot up the game. In that sequence he tossed six passes and completed all of them, including a 28-yard touchdown on fourth and long to senior Ryan Wagner to keep his team alive. The ball was perfectly thrown, just over the outstretched fingertips of the defender as Wagner hauled it in at the front corner pylon. The magnitude of that moment alone provided valuable experience and is something positive to build upon.
The Bear River defense held its ground against Pacheco’s running attack early, yielding 102 yards in the first half, but all of the Panthers’ 15 first half points came through the air on just two quick plays. The touchdown receptions, 47 and 61 yards, had most of the yardage come after the catch. Containing the run effectively makes any secondary more vulnerable, but that’s a gamble a lot of teams take and at times they get burned.
The Bruins executed well overall and had plenty of opportunities, cashing in when they could, but also shot themselves in the foot on a few occasions. Yet, despite turnovers, they were still just one big play away from winning the game late in the fourth quarter. That says a lot about this group of guys.
Co-head coach Scott Savoie said it best after the game, noting the time to make mistakes is now because Pioneer Valley League play is what really counts.
A fumble on the opening second half kickoff gave the Panthers a short field and they took advantage. Later, with the game tied 29-29 in the fourth quarter, Pacheco had a third-and-10 from their own 47-yard line. A stop near midfield would have likely prompted a punt, but Panthers’ slick quarterback Juwan Epperson eluded a sack and snuck by a few defenders to pick up the first down on what turned out to be the game-winning drive.
One fewer turnover or one more tackle could have easily changed the end result. The Panthers also converted on a pair of crucial fourth-and-ones during their two previous scoring drives. Bear River didn’t give up anything big on the ground until late in the game, but that’s often when things matter most.
Midway though the first quarter the Panthers even had the Bruins on the ropes, knocking at the door with a first and goal opportunity. Bear River stuffed the Panthers short of the goal line twice and forced a fumble on the 1-yard line during Pacheco’s third attempt. The Bruins took over at the 3-yard line and put together a 97-yard scoring drive for the first points of the game, largely thanks to tremendous athleticism on display from senior wide receiver Travis Whitehead.
That momentum proved to feed the defense. The Bruins forced Pacheco to go three and out after a monster 11-yard sack by John Voter III. On Bear River’s next possession Voter plowed into the endzone, but it wouldn’t have happened if Uclaray hadn’t sprawled out to recover a Bruin fumble at the Panther’s 5-yard line a few plays earlier. Junior Ben O’Lena also converted 3-of-3 PAT attempts and got off some solid punts in his kicking debut.
The team’s leadership, awareness and instincts demonstrated for a Week Zero game was definitely above par.
In 2013, Bear River won its first four games by 19 points or more and wasn’t truly challenged until Week 5 when they hosted Eureka and came from behind with a winning drive late in the fourth quarter. In Friday’s Week Zero matchup against Pacheco the Bruins were tested every way imaginable, something that will better serve them in the weeks to come.
Bear River has a few more practices left this week to fine tune itself before its non-league game Friday against Union Mine at J. David Ramsey Field.
Brian Shepard is a freelance sports writer who contributes to The Union regularly.